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Fri 11 May 2018 12:31 AM

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Opinion: Ten years on, how different is the Middle East?

The Arab Youth Survey continues to provide an unrivalled window into the thoughts of the region's young people

Opinion: Ten years on, how different is the Middle East?
New era can Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman deliver change?

Ten years is not actually a very long time. I remember well the first ever Arab Youth Survey (AYS), published on November 11, 2008. Its findings were largely a comparison of Western and Arab attitudes to various issues of the day. Interesting, I thought, but like most people I doubted there would be a 2009 survey.

After all, the mere idea of asking thousands of young people across the Arab world what they thought about anything, and then publishing the results, seemed incredulous. But to be fair to ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, the PR giants behind the survey, its publication would turn out to be a landmark event that is now wholly supported by governments right across the region. They quickly realised that being able to understand the hopes and fears of the youth in a region where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and more than 100 million are between 15 to 29, is one of their most important tasks.

The AYS has also become essential reading for public and private organisations, who now have comprehensive data and analysis from which to make informed decisions. For that, and for having the courage to produce this survey for ten years running, the group’s CEO and founder Sunil John deserves huge praise.

Hindsight is everything

We should, perhaps, have paid much more attention to the results in 2009. It told us, for instance, that 27 percent of young Arabs knew someone who had lost their job. Nearly 40 percent said their income had been affected by the recent global economic downturn. Their main priorities were living in a democracy, having high quality infrastructure, access to the best universities, being paid a fair wage and the ability to live in a safe neighbourhood. Their top three concerns were the rising cost of living, shortage of affordable housing and unemployment.

The 2009 AYS also showed just how fast social media was growing, and that for the first time young Arabs could connect with youth from around the world to share opinions and information.

Just nine months after the 2009 survey was released in March 2010, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, sparking off the Arab Spring. There is a strong case to be made that the 2009 AYS very much contained the warning signs to the Arab Spring, and that nobody quite heeded them.

Understanding the hopes and fears of the Arab youth is only half the job. Acting upon them is the more important part”

MBS is the future

That being so, the 2018 AYS makes fascinating reading. First the good news: the latest AYS reveals that 63 percent of young Arabs have a high level of confidence in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and his leadership. The number rises to 91 percent in Saudi itself. His anti-corruption campaign is supported by 86 percent of young Arabs. Given that Time magazine just named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in the world, having the support of the Arab youth for his landmark reforms is essential and to be welcomed.

Equally impressive is the finding that the United Arab Emirates is, for the seventh year running, the country young Arabs would most like to live in. This is a ringing endorsement of the UAE’s wise leadership, liberal culture, tolerance and excellent infrastructure, healthcare and education systems. If there ever was role model country for the region, there can be no doubt that the UAE is it.

Having said all that, it is worth noting that creating well-paid jobs, modernising the education system and cracking down on government corruption were all seen as important – with 86 percent of youth in the Levant saying their countries are now moving in the wrong direction.

Understanding the hopes and fears of the Arab youth is only half the job. Acting upon them is the other, more important, part.

Anil Bhoyrul, Editor-in-Chief, ITP Media Group

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